Bernie | Movie review
Jack Black reunites with the director of School of Rock for a much darker comedy.
From the plotless, anecdotal Slacker to the feature-length conversations of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Richard Linklater is responsible for some of the most adventurous American indies of the last two decades. That tradition continues with Bernie, a narrative-documentary hybrid that feels worthy, in its own softly satirical way, of a deconstructionist like Abbas Kiarostami.
In his funniest performance since Linklater’s School of Rock, Jack Black stars as the real-life title character, a town mortician whose relentless cheerfulness and generosity endears him to just about the entire population of Carthage, Texas. Bernie’s irrepressible kindness is put to the test when he befriends the wealthy, widely detested widow Mrs. Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, never winking through the crone’s awfulness). One neighbor likens their contentious, symbiotic quasi-romance to a tugging match between sweetness and pure evil. Something has to give—and eventually it does, quite shockingly.
Part of the film’s pleasure lies in watching its spirit of poky Southern amiability give way to true-crime insanity. The rest derives from Linklater’s nervy conceptual gimmick. Taking a page from Jia Zhangke’s 24 City, the director presents real interviews with Texas townsfolk alongside scripted ones performed by professional actors. The mix is practically seamless; even recognizable faces like Matthew McConaughey, who does a hysterical inversion of his usual plucky-lawyer character, blend comfortably into the ensemble. Bernie turns out to be a biting examination of warped small-town values, as well as an absurdist comedy about the way popularity sometimes trumps moral imperative. It’s also frequently hilarious—a credit you can’t really bestow upon the films of, say, Kiarostami.